Who's Afraid Of A Viable Third Party?

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A couple of weeks ago, Tasmania made a small but significant contribution to Australian political history when Greens MP Nick McKim was appointed to a ministerial position. It wasn’t the first time an independent or a non-aligned third party MP has been appointed minister outside of a formal coalition agreement at state government level but this occasion came about off the back of a record state-wide vote for the Greens of 21.3 per cent which affirmed the party’s strengthened credibility as a third party choice. 

While this result fell slightly short of the extraordinary 22.7 per cent won by One Nation in the 1998 Queensland election, that party’s rise proved to be a flash in the pan. By contrast, the Greens in Tasmania have built up their vote and presence over more than 20 years. This has been achieved in the face of fierce resistance by the two traditional major parties — who even went so far as to shrink the size of the Tasmanian parliament in an effort to lock the Greens out of the system.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the appointment of a Greens Minister will consolidate the Greens’ vote. The circumstances are very different, but the failure of South Australian Nationals MP Karlene Maywald — who served as a non-aligned minister in the last two Rann Labor governments — to hold her own seat in the recent South Australian election shows that holding a ministership does not guarantee an increase in voter support. But at a bare minimum, it will be very difficult for Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett to stop Nick McKim from taking part in the televised debates between leaders during the next Tasmanian election campaign as he managed to do last time around.

This may seem like a petty matter, but as Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats showed in the first of the Leaders’ debates in the current UK election campaign, giving a third party a platform alongside the two traditional major parties can transform voter attitudes. Even though they polled over 22 per cent in the 2005 UK general elections, and over 25 per cent in the 2008 local council elections, the Liberal Democrats have still struggled with the perception that they are not in the same frame as Labour and the Conservatives. Most people believed Nick Clegg performed very well in the first Leaders’ debate but the mere fact that he and his party were given equal billing with the others was highly significant.

Both the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the Greens in Australia are seeking to break into what have effectively operated as two party systems for more than a lifetime. Both are positioning themselves as progressive, fresh alternatives to tired, spin-driven parties. And both face major opposition not just from two well-entrenched competitors, but also from major media and corporate interests who are much more comfortable with the established system.

After sitting under the radar of Labour and the Conservatives at the start of the campaign, Nick Clegg and his party are now the subjects of direct attacks from the two old parties.

In the fiercely competitive world of politics, this sort of treatment should come as no surprise to smaller parties if they do become a genuine threat.

As Liberal Senator Nick Minchin kindly informed the Australian Democrats during the round of speeches delivered as that party ended its 30 year presence in the Australian Parliament, the major parties pull out all stops when they perceive a serious threat to their turf. Minchin noted his "achievement" in stopping then Democrats leader, the late Janine Haines, from winning a Lower House seat at the 1990 election. As Minchin said, when polling showed Haines was likely to win — which from his party’s perspective "would have been a dreadful thing to have occurred" — he unleashed "the most negative campaign that has ever been run against the Democrats anywhere". The Democrats never polled that highly again.

The Greens in Tasmania were better prepared for similarly ferocious and misleading final-week attacks from the ALP at the recent state election but it is still hard for smaller parties to avoid some electoral damage from these kind of attacks. While Labor was rightly criticised for its dodgy smears, they almost achieved their purpose of dragging down the Greens’ vote in the seat of Braddon far enough to stop them gaining a seat.

Although the tiers of government in the UK and Australia aren’t exactly comparable, the Greens have mirrored the Liberal Democrats insofar as they have built a presence and trust with voters at a local level. Both parties have allowed voters to get used to the idea that the sky doesn’t fall in when third parties get elected to positions of authority.

The Greens now have over 100 people elected to local government positions across Australia, and 21 MPs across every state and territory — with the exception of Queensland and the Northern Territory. The Liberal Democrats’ strategy of heavily targeting particular localities and slowly building up enough support to be seen as a credible choice in specific House of Commons electorates has worked well for them.

Of course, there are also significant differences between the two scenarios. While the Greens have been slowly but steadily building their electoral support around the country since the 1990s, they have only been elected to lower house seats in general elections in multi-member proportional representation systems in Tasmania and the ACT. Lower house by-election successes at federal level and in Western Australia have yet to be repeated at a general election.

By contrast, while the Liberal Democrats have only been around in their current incarnation since 1988, their party history stretches back to the 19th century, including a long period as the dominant governing party. Despite long periods in the doldrums, they have always maintained some presence in the House of Commons, even with the disadvantage of its far more primitive first-past-the-post voting system, not to mention the built-in disadvantages arising from infrequent redistributions, which strongly favour the Labour Party.

Tasmania, with its population of around half a million under a compulsory voting regime, is a very different electoral environment to the UK, with more than 61 million people, major regional variations and a voluntary voting system.

Although the Liberal Democrats and the Greens can both broadly be defined as centre-left, with the Liberal Democrats consistently giving more attention to environmental issues than the two major parties, they do have different philosophical traditions and social bases. Indeed, one of the side issues of interest in the UK election is whether the British Green party will win their first Lower House seat, with Caroline Lucas seen as a genuine chance to win the seat of Brighton Pavilion.

It is easy to overdo the search for parallels. A Liberal Democrat breakthrough will occur not if they outpoll one of the two majors — although polls currently suggest this is on the cards — but if they gain enough seats to hold the balance of power. This second scenario is also possible, but harder to predict given the serious distortions built in to the UK electoral system.

If the Greens do manage to maintain their general growth around Australia, they are more likely to have lower house breakthroughs in a small number of seats, rather than surge to voting levels on a par with one of the established majors. The impact of these breakthroughs, should they occur, will vary depending on the surrounding political environment — including whether they find themselves in a balance of power scenario or not.

The Greens are tipped as having some chances in a few House of Representatives seats at this year’s federal election, but they are even better poised to break through in a number of lower house seats in both the Victorian and New South Wales elections due to follow the federal poll.

Just like Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, a number of long-term state Labor governments are struggling to convince voters that they haven’t outstayed their welcome — and the conservative parties in opposition are struggling to inspire voters as an alternative. The challenge for progressive third parties like the Greens and the Lib Dems is to overcome perceptions that they are not a credible mainstream choice. This is something the Lib Dems have clearly achieved — while the Greens have a bit further to go.

One final point of commonality between the Greens in Tasmania and the Liberal Democrats in the UK may emerge — and that is a final result which is lower than the pundits predicted. While the Greens’ result in Tasmania was a record, it was a few percentage points below what some pre-election polls suggested — probably partly as a result of Labor’s final week assault and partly some last minute voter decisions to go "back to the fold" of their traditional major party.

After all the pre-election publicity and many polls that suggest the Liberal Democrats may shoot to second place — at least — in the popular vote, it’s possible a few voters might still shy away at the final minute, especially given the continuing attacks not just from political opponents, but from a mainstream press in the UK which is aggressively partisan.

In the end, after all the punditry and hype and analysis, next week’s UK election will boil down to very simple arithmetic: how many seats each party wins, and whether either major party has won enough to govern in their own right. And when a federal election is called in Australia, the same will apply.

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